By Faith Eckersall.
It’s not often you get the chance to see one of Hollywood’s greatest stars in Salisbury.
But that’s what happened during the Second World War, when Vivienne Leigh – who played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – accompanied her husband, Laurence Olivier, to a humble former Methodist Chapel, just off Fisherton Street.
Leigh was appearing in an Anglo-American troop show at what was known as the Garrison Theatre – a venue which hosted shows for the troops – which eventually morphed into the Salisbury Playhouse.
Now, the history of how a Primitive Methodist chapel sparked the creation of one of the UK’s most respected regional theatres has been lovingly told in a new book.
Arthur Millie, one of two volunteer archivists at the Playhouse, has just published a history of the theatre, from its beginnings in 1869 as a place of worship, through its war years, to the Arts Theatre, and its current iteration.
The story covers the years from 1945-2000. “I could have written even more about the last 22 years but decided to stick with the first half century,” he says.
His researches have uncovered a wealth of detail about the famous thespians who have graced the town. They include Peter Ustinov, who got his first break in Salisbury, to Christopher Biggins, who started off as a stagehand at the Playhouse, before taking a number of panto roles, including, according to Arthur, that of a rat in Dick Whittington.
“Euan McGregor attended the Guildhall Acting School and his first acting job was at the Playhouse, in What The Butler Saw before TV and films took over,” says Arthur.
His book also recalls the hard work of the actors’ repertory company, which was often performing one play every week, while rehearsing the next.
He believes his book will help local people, and anyone who loves the theatre, trace the progress of the Playhouse; from its humble and hard-working beginnings, into the cultural powerhouse it is today. The original chapel has been long-since demolished, although the name Chapel Place, just off Fisherton Street honours its heritage.
“It’s amazing to think of all that has come from the decision to use a near-derelict hall as a theatre,” says Arthur.
Twice Upon a Salisbury Stage: The Story of Salisbury Playhouse and its Two Theatres 1945-2000 is available from The Rocketship Bookshop in Bridge Street, Salisbury, or online.